The cuisine students at Le Cordon Bleu had a field trip to Rungis, the largest professional fresh product market in the world. The market is so big that it's actually it's own city! In this supermarket, just outside of Paris, there's a bank, hairdresser, coffee shop, chinese restaurant, hospital, and bistro – what more could one ask for?
My day started at 4:30 A.M. After a restful three hours of sleep I jumped in my pre-ordered taxi and headed across town to meet up with friends and await our tour buses. We were told to get there by 5:15 A.M. sharp or the buses would leave without us. I arrived at 5:00 A.M. underdressed, with no jacket, scarf, or hat – WHAT WAS I THINKING? The buses were late. An hour late. I froze my butt off during that long, long hour and had to pimp clothing from other barely awake friends (thanks Omry & Richard). We all huddled for warmth and amused ourselves with silly jokes still punch drunk from lack of sleep. Finally our buses arrived and we were off! Unfortunately, by 6 A.M we had missed all of the fish market, and most of the butchering in the meat packing area too.
I guess I didn't really understand how big Rungis was going to be. I thought it was going to be like a large farmer's market. When the bus tour guide rattled off the figure of 3,000 hectares, it really didn't mean anything to me – uh, what's a hectare?. Rungis is huge! We started off in the produce area and worked our way through exotic fruits, miniature vegetables, edible flowers, artichokes bigger than my head, hundreds of apple varieties, potatoes for miles, and more. I've never seen so much food in my life. In fact, Rungis supplies 20 million consumers with food. Incroyable!!!
After our vegetable and fruit tour we drove to the meat packing area and donned special hair nets and jackets. The area was a bit of a shock initially. There were hundreds of animals hung on meat hooks: veal, pigs, cows, horses, suckling pigs, etc. I'm a little desensitized because we butcher smaller portions of meat all the time in class, but I was struck dumb by the sight of dead baby suckling pigs. I don't know why, but baby animals really tear at my heartstrings. The funny thing was, they all seemed to be smiling. I wanted to ask how exactly they are killed, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it.
Another bizarre sight were butchered cows hanging with their pictures pinned on. As if to say, "Here's Daisy, she was once a gal chewing cud, now just a side of beef – but not just any side of beef – a blue ribbon choice". And then there was the horse section. I love horses and love to ride and I don't think of horse as an acceptable form of food. If I ever have to eat horse steak I'll probably throw up, but I was impressed by their massive muscular structure covered with the deep yellow fat. One of the meat packing guys told me that a lot of the horses come from America. That really shocked me. There were other disturbing things like how they crush the animal skulls to get the brains out, but I won't go into that...
Meat packers are a happy morbid bunch who can slash an animal into parts in record breaking time. I was interested in the process and impressed by the cleanliness of the facilities, but happy to get out – besides, it was freezing in there! Interesting to note also, is the bidding process on the animals. Restaurant and market managers come down to Rungis and haggle over the prices. I guess that's where the 'before' pictures come in handy. How some one can look at a side of beef and know what it's worth is beyond me.
Lips blue, fingers numb, and brains churning over the morality of animal death, we left for the the fromage section. Oh happy day! Many students entered the cheese warehouse and immediately pinched their noses from the overwhelming powerful cheese scents. Not me! I took a big sniff and smiled. I love cheese and there was every single type to be seen (unfortunately none to taste – and we were starving). Soft cheese wrapped in leaves or herbs, huge wheels of cheese aging on wooden racks, gooey cheeses with moldy crusts ranging from dark grey in color to soft fluffy white. Cheese for miles...yummmm.
I didn't know that buyers could sample the big wheels of cheese before buying. The process is kinda cool, like wine tasting. There is a special tool that takes a plug out of the cheese wheel about the size of a cork. The hole is then plugged back up with just the outer rind from the little cork. Next time I need to buy a wheel I'll make sure to get a plug full first...hey, maybe that's where all the holes in cheese come from!
Lastly we finished with the flower market which was half empty and dull in comparison to the San Francisco flower mart. There was only a hand full of vendors, but it's not exactly the best time to grow right now in Europe. The buyers for the market are on the phones every day to foreign countries including South America (Ecuador for roses) asking what the weather is like and how the flowers are doing. It's really a fast paced business and the buyers must speak a lot of languages. I always thought that the flower industry was more laid back, but it's more like the New York stock exchange.
On our way back to school everyone passed out on the bus. Heads bobbed trying unsuccessfully to stay awake as we pulled into the 15th arrondissement – more tired than when we had left. On arrival we stumbled back into school, changed into our uniforms, and prepared for a three hour demonstration on meat. I'm not quite sure how any of us made it through that demo, and I don't remember a lot about it either except that I did have to leave a few times to get coffee from the vending machine.
We always think so much about what we're going to put on the plate, but seldom do we have the time to actually consider the business of food. How it's grown, how it gets to the markets, the middle men involved in price negotiations, and the health standards maintained or ignored. The trip was fascinating, like walking backstage in a Broadway show.
Rungis is a professional market and you can't get in without the appropriate license so we were very lucky to have this opportunity. It was an experience I'll remember forever despite my lack of sleep and warm clothing!